Obituary: Matthew Sullivan
Monday 22 September 1997
The life of Matthew Sullivan was shaped by a long, continuing involvement with matters of the spirit, with literary culture and with relations between Britain and Germany.
His influence was probably widest when, as a young man working for the small publishing firm Valentine Mitchell in London, he helped select and commission the first English, 1952, translation of The Diary of Anne Frank, after several publishers had rejected the manuscript. He recommended publication also of the first edition of Gerald Reitlinger's The Final Solution (1953), the first detailed study of the Holocaust.
Born in Canada and educated at Rugby and New College, Oxford, Sullivan was studying as a Hanseatic Scholar in Germany in 1939 when he was taken to a Nazi rally in Bremen at which Hitler spoke. He recalled being the only person not to raise his arm in the Nazi salute.
Following wartime service as a navigator with the RAF - from which came a novel, Fibre (1947) - his knowledge of German took him into military intelligence. A historical study, Thresholds of Peace (1979), later recorded the German experience in British prisoner-of-war camps, drawing in part on his own work during the Second World War in dealing with senior Wehrmacht officers. Translated into German in 1981, this book together with Sullivan's earlier career with the German language service of the BBC resulted in 1983 in an award from the German Federal government, the Bundesverdienstkreutz (or Order of Merit), for his contribution to Anglo-German reconciliation.
Sullivan spent two decades at the BBC as scriptwriter and producer (1953- 75), broadcasting to the two Germanies about cultural matters in Britain, an interpreter of Britain to Germans.
He later published two volumes of his own poetry, one of them celebrating his marriage to Elizabeth Dayley, as well as editing a book of selected writings of his friend the renowned Sri Lankan journalist Tarzie Vittachi, a former editor of the Colombo Times. At the time of his death he had almost completed a biography of Vittachi, whose courageous journalism had taken him from his native Sri Lanka into exile, where he founded a newspaper called the Asian, and became assistant executive director at Unicef.
Like Vittachi, Matthew and Elizabeth Sullivan were members of Subud, an ecumenical spiritual fellowship drawing together people from different faiths across the globe. In this capacity they travelled extensively, particularly to Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe where they had close contacts with political and cultural dissidents at the ending of the Communist era. They had only recently returned from an international congress of Subud in Seattle.
This deeply cultured man was buried in the Quaker burial ground at Jordans in Buckinghamshire, a short walk from the family home. His grave is near the Mayflower Barn, where his play The Nettle and the Mayflower was performed in 1969, and close to Jordans village, where children of the Quaker Meeting House performed his plays at Christmas.
He leaves six children, including a roads campaigner, Mark; a painter, Miranda Richmond; a rock musician, Justin (of New Model Army); and Francesca (Yasmin), an internationally renowned belly-dancer now dancing in Cairo: each of whose diverse careers he enthusiastically supported.
- Paul Trewhela
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